Legislation required to allow the U.S.-India agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation to go forward comes up for consideration Wednesday in the House of Representatives. House lawmakers have included strong language underscoring concerns about nuclear proliferation and worries about any Indian violations of the accord.
The agreement being debated by Congress would remove decades-long restrictions and allow the United States to sell technology to assist India's civilian nuclear sector. In return, India would open up civilian nuclear plants to international inspection.
As the deal moves closer to possible approval by Congress, the Bush administration is pushing lawmakers to approve necessary changes in U.S. law to allow the nuclear-related exports. But the deal remains just as controversial as it was when it was first proposed in early 2005.
The Bush administration says approval will mark an important turning point in U.S.-India relations, and will not harm global nonproliferation efforts.
However, many in Congress believe that in the process of providing such assistance, the United States may help India free up resources it will then devote to producing more nuclear weapons.
Such skepticism was made plain in a House subcommittee hearing last week chaired by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. He said Congress must be very cautious. "As we move forward with this India initiative, that number one, that we are not doing so in a way that will in some way enhance the nuclear weapons capability of India," he said.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, Francis Record, says provisions will prevent this from happening, with assistance going only to nuclear reactions in India that are safeguarded.
India, he says, has enough uranium to meet both civilian and military needs, while other steps, such as negotiating a Fissile Material Reduction Treaty of which India would be part, will further strengthen safeguards.
Skeptics are not satisfied. In one exchange during the hearing, California Democrat Howard Berman got the assistant secretary to acknowledge that the U.S. did not achieve what it originally intended in negotiations with India.
BERMAN: "In the earlier discussions, the U.S. position was to safeguard a much higher percentage of the reactors than we finally achieved, isn't that right?"
RECORD: "There were a number of objectives I think, a number of issues that we had before us in discussions with the Indians that we didn't fully achieve."
Compromises notwithstanding, Record says failure to go ahead with the agreement could result in up to 80 percent of Indian nuclear facilities lacking safeguarded status.
As the House prepares to consider the U.S.-India agreement, and with the Senate also considering it, the White House continues to lobby lawmakers to support it.
But opponents now point to a Washington Post report [published Monday] quoting nuclear analysts as saying Pakistan is moving to greatly expand its nuclear weapons program to support their assertion that the U.S-India deal could spark a new South Asia arms race.
Congressman Rep. Ed Markey urges President Bush to renegotiate what he calls a verifiable treaty and press India and Pakistan to agree to suspend production of bomb-making fissile materials. "If you think Pakistan's new [nuclear] reactor and this nuclear deal with India aren't related, you are fooling yourself. We are moving towards a world with more and more nuclear material that could fall into terrorist hands rather than less and less," he said.
Markey will propose an amendment to require President Bush to certify India is not sending nuclear materials to Iran before the U.S. begins providing India with nuclear fuel.
White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked about the Washington Post report on Monday. "We continue to discourage the expansion and modernization of nuclear weapons programs, both of India and Pakistan. We also support a fissile material cutoff treaty that we have introduced to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. We are continuing [to urge] all states that produce fissile material to observe a voluntary production moratorium as we have in the U.S. for a very long time," he said.
Leonard Spector, deputy director of the California-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies, says the U.S. achieved only modest nonproliferation pledges from New Delhi. Spector praised Congress for strengthening the accord. "Congress has stepped in. It has strengthened the deal to a certain extent and it will have the chance to do so further when the House bill comes to the floor and I hope there will be some additional strengthening of the deal as it is finally enacted," he said.
That is precisely what House lawmakers are doing. A report accompanying the legislation to revise the 1954 Atomic Energy Act emphasizes the need for strict conditions to avert any violations by India, and gives the president broad powers to ensure compliance.
The legislation requires India to give the U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency a credible plan to separate civilian and military nuclear programs and materials, and reach agreement with the IAEA to permanently abide by IAEA standards.
It also requires the president to certify to Congress that India is working for the early conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, tightening laws regarding security of nuclear materials and technology, and adhering to requirements of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which must agree by consensus to an exception for India to its guidelines.